Scottish Opera has been taking opera to the people for many years, and its bold colourful promenade production of Pagliacci involving local community singers performing alongside professional soloists, chorus and the full Scottish Opera Orchestra has just taken it all to a new level. It was a brave and innovative decision to perform in a tent in Paisley, only a few miles from Glasgow but a town rich in its own traditions like the Sma’ Shot Festival marking a 19th-century struggle between weavers and employers, referenced in this production. The community has been watching the construction of The Paisley Opera House, a cross between the curved walls of a famous opera building and a circus Big Top on Seedhill Community Sports Ground with growing anticipation.

Ronald Samm (Canio) and Anna Patalong (Nedda) © James Glossop
Ronald Samm (Canio) and Anna Patalong (Nedda)
© James Glossop

Director Bill Bankes-Jones and Scottish Opera’s Music Director Stuart Stratford have form in creating the unexpected thorough the Tête à Tête opera company, here taking some 200 performers to create a festival-style experience, more Glastonbury than Glyndeborne. The audience arrived early for some pre-show entertainment, meeting Seonaid the donkey and taking in various side shows from handbell ringers to traditional Punch and Judy. The orchestra ensconced on a platform in one of the tent wings was in relaxed mood, a few lucky ticket winners getting to conduct William Tell overture for a minute or so – I don’t think the orchestra has been conducted by a boy with a sword before, but his mischievous grin to the audience as he sped the players up set the playful tone for the evening. As the tent filled up around a central curtain-sided lorry trailer it was fun playing spot the difference between performer and audience.  

Anna Patalong (Nedda) © James Glossop
Anna Patalong (Nedda)
© James Glossop

Leoncavello’s Pagliacci is a simple tragic story of love and jealousy played out by a troupe of entertainers as themselves and in character in a play within a play. Sung in English to a witty libretto written by Bankes-Jones for this production, Robert Hayward as Tonio pulled back the lorry curtain a fraction to deliver the famous Prologue in gruff no-nonsense fashion, a real story about real people. The circus arrived with a parade in a strong cast led by Robert Samm as Canio banging a bass drum, his wife Nedda, Anna Patalong statuesque on stilts, with Beppe, Alasdair Elliot, inside a zorbing ball as the crowds reacted and followed the action. A lively children’s parade moved everyone round to a pivotal scene on a 10-foot high scaffold platform behind the lorry, where Nedda rejected Tonio and planned her elopement in a passionate heart-stopping duet with Samuel Dale-Johnson as her lover, Silvio, as conductor Stratford wrought every ounce of emotion from his players. As Canio realises what is going on at the end of the first act, in the famous aria “Vesti la giubba”, Ronald Samm bravely applied his show make-up, his strong voice betraying deep inner turmoil, before he fled, sobbing deeply, right through us – it was quite a moment.

The Commedia dell’arte show was held on the lorry trailer on a wonky slope with a table and chair made to fit in a primary colour design from Tim Meacock, remaining intact only as long as the characters stayed in performance guise. A giant hot dog provided much ribald amusement as Colombina sorted out her onstage love-life, with a bright bubble filled aria from Arleccino (Harlequin) balanced on a swing. There was some thrilling chorus work too with chorus masters Derek Clark and Katy Lavinia Cooper conducting stage left and right.    As Canio’s world unravelled, characters reverted to true life with Nedda and Silvio both brutally stabbed onstage as Hayward’s Tonio got the final line “The Comedy is Finished”. 

Ronald Samm (Canio) © James Glossop
Ronald Samm (Canio)
© James Glossop

In a genuinely commendable community production, remaining engaged as singers popped up at different locations was a challenge as you could go from being in the middle of the action one moment to suddenly being at the back of the crowd with little guidance and distracted by peripheral noise. Generally, diction was tricky to catch as singers had to address a far-spread crowd and without surtitles it was frustrating to miss out on the detail. Being in the middle of an audience when the person next to you bursts into a chorus is surprising at first but a bit like standing in the choir stalls and having to remain silent. More positively, there was an excitement about being in the middle of the action, and it is always thrilling to be close to professional opera singers going at full tilt.  

Bankes-Jones encourages audiences to simply enjoy promenade performances for what they are, and the capacity crowd (the entire run is sold out) was certainly making the most of this epic experience.